Seven Things About Deaconesses In The Church
Some churches have deaconesses and some have not. And the way deaconesses fulfill their role can be quite different from church to church. I know of a church where deaconesses are virtually co-leading the church with the elders. I have been in churches where they are treated as glorified janitors. Why do believers have a different take on this issue? What does the Bible say?
Here are 7 things you should know about deaconesses in the church.
1. It is a debated issue. The question if the Bible refers to deaconesses or not has been around for centuries. It’s not hard to find two Christians who both hold to the inspiration and authority of the Bible and yet disagree on this point. Because the Bible speaks about this topic sparingly, and because it doesn’t pertain a key doctrine, we should be tolerant to one another. We should work hard on understanding the Bible’s teaching, but also leave room here for charitable disagreement.
2. A good case can be made that Paul is referring to women deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11. After discussing the qualifications of elders and deacons, Paul writes: “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (ESV). The question is this: Is Paul addressing the wives of the deacons or does he have female deacons in mind? Both are legitimate translations from the Greek. Paul probably refers to women deacons because:
a) The qualifications for deaconesses are very similar to those of deacons in verse 8 and 9. For example, both are to be dignified; deacons are not to be “double-tongued”, the women must not be “slanderers”.
b) If Paul addressed the deacon’s wives, we would expect him to say, “their wives”, for clarification sake. The text reads literally, “women, likewise”.
c) Why would Paul say something about the deacons’ wives but not the elder’s wives? This is quite unlikely given the elder’s greater spiritual responsibility in the church
d) The word “likewise” is used three times in this passage. It precedes the qualifications of elders (v. 1), deacons (v. 8) and “women” (v. 11). The women were subject to similar criteria as the elders and deacons because they would be appointed to do diaconal work in the church. In all three cases the criteria served as a measuring stick to assess fitness for office.
3. Phoebe was most likely a deaconess (Rom. 16:2). Most translations call her “a servant of the church in Cenchrea”. But the word can also be translated deaconess or deacon (there is no distinction between the masculine or feminine in the Greek. Since Phoebe is clearly a female name, Paul would refer to a deaconess here). The combination of her name, function and location (“in Cenchrea”) suggests an official function, not a generic description of her servanthood. Every time this construction is used in the Bible, it refers to an official, formally recognized position (Acts 20:17, Jam. 5:14).
4. The Greek term diakonos (servant/deacon/deaconess) carries no meaning of authority or teaching. God has ordained two offices for the local church, elder (pastor, overseer) and deacon. The elders have the responsibility to govern and teach the church (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17). The role of the deacons is supportive and practical in nature (Acts 6:1-6). The office of elder is restricted to men. They are to exercise the teaching and leadership authority in the local church (1 Tim. 2:12). Deacons don’t have the responsibility to lead and govern. That is why the Bible allows for both male and female deacons.
5. The historical evidence for deaconesses is unquestionable. Deaconesses played a vital part in the early church, assisting the deacons with the practical day to day needs in the church. Ancient records show that deaconesses cared for the sick, the poor, helped prisoners and those traveling. They also discipled new female believers and assisted with baptism.
6. Deaconesses can be of great value to the church. They follow a long tradition of women who played an important role in the advancement of the Gospel. Qualified and gifted women should be nominated, voted on by the local church and commissioned to do their task. Deaconesses can assist the leadership of the church in visiting the sick, elderly and shut-ins. They can encourage those in mourning and coordinate help for people in need. Deaconesses should be recognized as official representatives of the church and respected as such.
7. Scripture should always be over culture. Some believers argue that even though Scripture allows for deaconesses, we would be foolish to appoint women to this office. They point to the major drive today to blur gender roles so clearly presented in the Bible. Allowing deaconesses is a slippery slope that will lead toward ordaining women elders, they say. But Scripture should always be over culture. We should never let the world dictate the Word, in both our teaching and practice.
A church doesn't need deaconesses, or deacons for that matter. Elders are a different case. Paul appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23), not deacons. A church can’t function well without a duly established team of qualified men who lead the church. But the office of deacon and deaconess is Biblical. It can be called upon to help meet the needs of the saints.